Rosie Altucher ’18
I went to a small, public, alternative combined middle and high school. The school emphasized experiential learning and creative and alternative assessment, so much so that I spent all seven years there without once receiving a letter grade. The school focused on active participation within and outside of the classroom. The time I spent volunteering at soup kitchens, writing music and constructing ecological experiments gave me an uncommon feeling of agency over my classes, my choices and my education.
I did not realize how unusual my high school was until I came to Smith. I also didn’t realize that, during high school, I hadn’t really learned how to take traditional assessments (we were exempt from all state tests except for one), and I was completely thrown off by the educational structure of Smith. There were exceptions, but the basic educational philosophy, regardless of department, seemed to be lecture, test, repeat. In many classes, my grade had nothing to do with creative or exceptional learning but everything to do with memorization.
It took me a while to realize that, despite this form of teaching and assessment, the academic standards at Smith were not any higher than the standards in my high school. Though the central focus of my high school curriculum wasn’t testing, any exams we did take were evaluated with a passing grade of 85 percent. Any score below that required revision (which often meant meeting with the teacher of the class), and usually meant you were required to retake the test until you reached the 85 percent threshold.
Eighty-five percent makes sense. If your goal is true understanding, it doesn’t make sense to accept a baseline knowledge of a little more than half of the material (the typical passing grade is 65 percent). Concepts in the classroom build upon one another; if you only understand 65 percent of the material, it’s unlikely that you fully grasp the foundations of what you’re studying. Holding students to a higher standard of learning means that everyone walks away with a better grasp on the curriculum.
However, you can’t have higher standards without allowing students to continue to work to meet those standards. During my first semester at Smith, I was baffled by the number of papers that were returned to me with a grade and no option to revise; I had been taught that writing is a process, and that it takes time and careful thought to write something that is truly good.
What message do we send to students when we administer tests without ever letting them retake or revise those tests? When I first came to Smith, people told me that our work was to study until we really understood the material, and then hope that would be reflected on the exam. But what outcomes do we value? If the true value of the classroom is in teaching and true learning, then a one-shot exam gives the impression that you only have one chance to learn something. I struggle to think of a subject for which this should be the method. Learning is a complicated process, a process that takes time, metacognitive thinking and reevaluation. An “A” grade achieved on the first attempt means the same level of understanding as an “A” grade achieved after multiple attempts the latter may even indicate better understanding following careful revisions and critical thought about why the first couple of attempts were incorrect.
I finally got to experience this kind of revision in college in the spring semester of my sophomore year. After seeing in the syllabus that my Multiple Regression class would have three exams, I went to the professor and told her that I really, truly wanted to learn the material of this class, but for me, that meant revision. For the first time, my college professor allowed me to revise my test answers for each exam. Now, a semester later, I remember the statistical concepts better than what was taught in my French, astronomy or government classes that offered me one shot at learning.
What does it mean to fail a test or a paper? I remember talking to a close friend who decided to take a risk on a paper, turning in a creative approach to an assignment about governmental concepts. She knew it was a risk, but she also knew that her idea was interesting. The “C+” grade came back, though, and she knew that she couldn’t take those kinds of risks in the future. But does ingenuity not come from revised mistakes? All students deserve to be granted the liberty to make huge, ridiculous mistakes, to fail, to fall down and then to figure out what happened and revise their work so that it isn’t a failure, but a discovery. Revelation can only come from failure, but without the option to take risks, learning becomes pinched and shallow. Learning takes time, and like anything meaningful, cannot be completed in one shot. Let’s reevaluate the standards of what we consider adequate learning while simultaneously giving every student the chance to actually meet those standards.